Bise Nagarchi is an historical figure, a tailor from Gorkha who sewed clothes for Prithbi Narayan Shah and was also a close adviser as the warrior king embarked on his conquest of Nepal 250 years ago.
Prithbi Narayan went on to capture Kathmandu Valley and unify the country, establishing the dynasty that rules Nepal to this day. Bise's descendants still live in Gorkha near the old hilltop palace. Recently, the district administration evicted the historical Nagarchi neighbourhood to make way for the expansion of the palace perimeter.
Poet Shrawan Mukarung happened to be in Gorkha and watched the Nagarchis forced out of their homes. Something snapped in the poet's psyche: centuries of exclusion of Nepal's dalits and janajatis suddenly became focussed in one point of light. Mukarung could express his outrage the only way he knew how: by sitting down to write a poem about the incident.
What he didn't expect was 'Bise Nagarchi ko Bayan' (translated excerpt in box) to be so popular so quickly. At a recital at Gurukul theatre this month, Mukarung read this and other poems to a packed hall. Something unheard of had happened-people paid to listen to poetry and Mukarung made nearly Rs 40,000. Not only is it rare for Nepalis to buy tickets for a poetry recital but the audience clamoured for Mukarung to recite 'Bise Nagarchi ko Bayan' over and over again.
We asked Mukarung why he thinks the poem is so popular. "I think it struck a chord in people," he replies. "It is an outpouring of the suppressed feelings of Nepal's cast-aside communities and of course it coincides with the country's present political predicament." Indeed, if 'Pijara ko Suga' was the allegorical protest against Rana oligarchy during times of censorship, 'Bise Nagarchi' could be a similar symbol of poetic resistance to Shah autocracy.
The poem is an imaginary conversation between Prithbi Narayan and Bise but both are in a timewarp-it is as if they are talking 250 years later, in present-day Nepal. The free verse is devoid of jargon, it is not a flag-waving call to arms to overthrow the oppressors. No, it is even more powerful than that because with its understated words and the low-key voice of a dalit it exposes the centuries of injustice that still exist.
"I wanted to use Bise's voice, tell it through his words, through the experience of his community and society," explains Mukarung, "and I put myself in his shoes after I saw the Nagarchi community being uprooted in Gorkha. It made me want to weep, I was erupting from deep inside."
We asked Mukarung how it feels to be a celebrity poet. "I am proud that I could communicate my feeling through the medium of poetry-people recognise me in the streets now and it is not an uncomfortable feeling." Rest of the interview:
Nepali Times: What is the role of poetry in a time of censorship?
Shrawan Mukarung: We have a big role to play. We are like Bise, we stitch words like fabric. Our pen and ink are his needle and thread. Our leaders are trying to say things but words fail them. It helps when we say it for them. Poets and poetry carry each other at times like these.
What new poetry are you weaving with pen and ink?
I am trying to relate the roots of the conflict in a poetry format bringing in the faces of janajatis, dalits and women. I am writing for full and sustained democracy so that my work will represent Nepal in its entirety. My feeling is that contemporary literature must embrace society. It doesn't make sense anymore to write poems about gurans, danfe and himals.
What inspires you to jot down poetry?
When I am seized with an internal outpouring of emotion, it automatically make me want to express it through verse. But first the reader in me must also approve that what I am about to write is worth expressing. And the satisfaction that I derive from that is something else.
Have you ever been as satisfied as you are now?
Once, when I heard the song 'Mathi mathi Sailungema'. But Bise Nagarchi has traversed boundaries-people who never read poetry were curious and read it. The lines entered the sociological imagination and my reward was the recognition it got.
Bise Nagarchi's Account
by Shrawan Mukarung
The lofty peaks of the Gorkha Kingdom
why have they suddenly shrivelled?
These decent and dignified people
why are they bleeding and bent?
Why has the Daraundi turned around to flow uphill?
Why do I see the Palace in fragments?
I've gone mad, I've gone mad.
Does your sword now chop heads, or petals?
I've been mistaken.
Does your rifle shoot down dreams, or people?
I've been mistaken.
Did your subjects make this kingdom, or you?
I've been mistaken.
Master, I've been with you now 250 years,
how can I be a terrorist?
I've gone mad, Master. Mad.
Excerpt from Bise Nagarchi's Account translated by Kunda Dixit